Muscogee Daughter: My Sojourn to the Miss America Pageant
On the surface, Susan Supernaw’s memoir Muscogee Daughter: My Sojourn to the Miss America Pageant is a story about an unlikely Miss Oklahoma winner and her trip to the 1971 Miss America pageant. The true story, however, is Supernaw’s struggle to escape a childhood marred by extreme poverty and violence and earn the Native American name revealed to her during a near death experience.
While reading the memoir, it was hard to keep in mind that Muscogee Daughter wasn’t a work of fiction. Supernaw’s struggles haunted me long after I finished reading the book, especially the image of her dying grandmother sharing a bed with Supernaw as an ill and abandoned infant.
Supernaw was the fourth daughter in a poor family and her birth was a major disappointment to her father. When she was just a baby her parents left her in the care of her elderly grandparents on a farm in rural Oklahoma so that her father could go back to college. It’s never made clear why her parents took the older girls and left their newborn, but whatever the reason it was ill conceived. By the time she was six months old, Supernaw’s grandmother had died and her mother returned to collect her.
Months of being confined to her grandmother’s bed and being fed cow’s milk and coffee by her inexperienced grandfather landed her in the hospital for many weeks. That would be the first of a handful of close calls in Supernaw’s life and each time she believed she was about to die, a beautiful woman appeared to comfort her. Supernaw believed she was a manifestation of the Corn Mother.
The second time the woman appeared she brought a small dancing bear, a personification of Supernaw’s Native American name. A community elder came to Supernaw’s bed side and advised her to follow her destined path in order to earn the right to her name and earning that name became her primary goal. Paralyzed after a horse riding accident, Supernaw fought to walk again and eventually, she became an athletic high school cheerleader, a Presidential scholar, an accidental beauty queen, and a unifying figure for the eastern and western tribes of Oklahoma.
Supernaw memoir reveals many painful and personal details about her life. We learn of the abusive father who left the family bereft and who was replaced by an even more tyrannical and dangerous step-father, though initially the four girls were happy to have him provide more than the ketchup sandwiches they had been accustomed to eating for dinner.
Supernaw seems to understand that her family’s story is representative of a piece of American history—one that is too often untold; however, it feels like too much was left unsaid. Though she was an anthropology major concerned with human rights, her attitude towards the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is puzzling. Supernaw says that it gave her white boyfriend “an unfair disadvantage and made me feel like I’d been given an unfair advantage.” In later pages she reveals that she “felt a lot of confusion over minority preference,” yet she also felt the sting of racism from her boyfriend who believed her Presidential award was the result of her being a minority. There were was also the cheerleaders’ parents who did not allow her in their homes; the Miss America pageant that treated her like an oddity; and the media that used offensive stereotypes to describe her.
Muscogee Daughter was both fascinating and frustrating. As a reader I wanted to know more about her family and her experience as a woman of color living between white and Native worlds. The importance of earning her Native American name is clear, but the significance of the milestone is not. Nevertheless, Susan Supernaw’s memoir is essential in the narrative of American history.